It took all my willpower yesterday to leave out of my “Life as a fugue” post an amusing (if revoltingly sexist) quote from the Preface of the second edition of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. As described by BBC3 commentator Simon Heighes in an interview with Lucie Skeaping, the Preface was written by “a Bach Family friend” Friedrich Marpurg (1718-1795) who extols the virtues of fugues by saying that “fugues are ‘manly’ and modern composers should learn to write them and avoid the ‘hoppity melodification of fashionable music’ which, Marpurg says, is merely ‘womanish rubbish.'”
Well! (The Wikipedia article on Marpurg notes that, “Marpurg’s quarrelsome disposition and his enthusiasm for public polemics made him many enemies.” Are we surprised?)
Manly music. What might that be? I argued yesterday that fugues, by virtue of their their abstract conception and somewhat rule-bound working out, were similar to the way human DNA gets expressed in life – which is to say in both male and female genders, with a lot of variation.
On the talkclassical.com website I saw this ridiculous list of composers “defined” by the writer as being essentially masculine or feminine:
Bach – Masculine
Beethoven – Masculine
Mozart – Feminine
Mendelssohn – Feminine
Brahms – Masculine
Chopin – Feminine
Liszt – Masculine
Mahler – Masculine
Schoenberg – Masculine
Weber – Feminine
Holst – Masculine
Korsakov – Feminine
Rachmaninov – Masculine
Schumann – Masculine
Ravel – Masculine
Debussy – Feminine
Delius – Feminine
Elgar – Feminine
Scriabin – Feminine
Sibelius – Feminine
There is no denying the historical dominance of the male perspective in classical music up to around 1985, but the situation has changed radically in the last 30 years. Where men used to predominate as composers, instrumentalists (especially soloists), and singers, women have dramatically increased their numbers and status, and now, I believe, exert a greater influence over the future of classical music than men.
Why has this happened? I think the crudest (and saddest) explanation for this is that there is less money and status in classical music than there was 30 years ago, and women have historically been paid less for their artistry than men. With reduced money and status associated with classical music, men are choosing other socially-ambitious, more financially-rewarding careers.
Another explanation may be that men fear and resent gender equality (or male inferiority). As the number and power of women in classical music increases, more and more men are getting out-competed by equally-talented, but hungrier and better-trained women.
Given the recent great and rapid change in gender status within classical music, it is difficult to argue that there is any reality to gender essentialism in classical music. (Wikipedia: “In gender studies…, the basic proposition that men and women are essentially different continues to be a matter of contention… A claim that gender is socially constructed probably means that gender, as currently understood, is not an inevitable result of biology, but highly contingent on social and historical processes. In addition, depending on who is making the claim, it may mean that our current understanding of gender is harmful, and should be modified or eliminated, to the extent possible.”)
But if there is no significant essentialism in the performance of classical music, I think one can sometimes detect (or am I imagining?) a male or female sensibility in music composition. Not in something as obvious as “manly music” or “girlie music,” but in the way the composer creates and uses musical elements that define themselves by contrast, in the same way that the Taoist visual symbol of Yin and Yang juxtaposes equal but independent and interdependent male and female influences.
In any event, I am a happy man in an increasingly women’s profession (yang within yin, kind of a 1:30 pm kind of guy).